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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Handling honey bees safely

  • Practical beekeeping
  • Gregory P.
  • 2004
  • Article
  • English
  • Text on this website


Bees for Development Fact Sheet

Handling honey bees safely Working with honeybee should be a pleasurable and enriching experience. However it is important to remember that honeybees can be dangerous and they need to be treated with respect. Bees can sting. This is their only form of defence and if they had not been able to defend their homes from the many robbers that love honey they would probably have driven them into extinction long before now. 

Stings can kill an animal or person. This can happen in two ways. A large number of stings discharge a great quantity of venom into the system which in sufficient quantity can cause death by poisoning. In a small number of cases an allergy to stings can cause death with only a few stings. See also sheet no 24.01- Allergic Reactions to Bee Stings 

Throughout the ages people's first line of defence when handling or robbing bees has been smoke. This has long been known that this subdues the bees although it is not clear why. Observation of the bees though will show that they go to their honey stores and gorge on honey when smoked. Some suggest that the effect of smoke mimics a bush fire and that the bees eat honey in order to abscond to a safer place while others consider that simply consuming honey makes bees more docile. Whatever the reason smoke is the first essential for safe handling of bees. The skilled beekeeper will need only minimal smoke when handling bees and will know exactly when to apply it having learned to judge the bees temper. A skilled beekeeper will know that he has the bees under control applying a little more smoke to keep them subdued when he observes that the bees are becoming a little more excited. Smoke also protects the beekeeper while he is working. Once the bee has stung it releases a pheromone smell that other bees recognise as a danger signal. Then many bees will rush to the source of the smell and sting there as well in an effort to defend their home. It is really important if even one sting is received to very quickly cover the place with smoke to hide the smell of the sting.  

Using the smoker
Different strains of bees react very differently to smoke. In fact their reaction is almost indicative of their race. This means there are slightly different techniques of smoking bees depending on where you live in the world and the type of bees you are handling. For non African Apis mellifera bees the smoke is applied over the top bars to keep the bees within the colony. The bees are only under control when they are below the frames or top bars and gentle smoke should be drifted over the top of the frames or bars to keep the bees down. However for African bees the technique is quite different. If the top bars are smoked the bees run away from the smoke until they are hanging from the door of the colony. In severe cases this can cause them to abscond.  A better technique is to smoke the bees strongly at the entrance the wait for a few minutes until the smoke has taken some effect. Smoke can periodically be puffed over the beekeeper and very gently over the hive top bars making sure the bees do not run out of the entrance.  Using covering cloths or not removing too many top bars at once reduces the need for smoke as most of the hive still remains covered and in darkness. The Asian hive bee is much gentler and consequently need less smoke to control them. Like the African honey bee too much smoke can cause these bees to abscond.  

Protective clothing
Beekeepers should use protective clothing. This doesn't have to be complicated or expensive but should be carefully made with appropriate materials.  Bees don't sting unless they are annoyed. Unfortunately lots of things annoy bees. Some of these annoyances are associated with the type of clothing that people wear to visit the bees.  Bees hate dark colours which is why beekeepers traditionally wear white clothing. Bees also hate woolly rough or textured types of material because they get their feet caught in them which upsets them causes them to sting. This also applies to hair so if a bee gets caught in the hair it needs to be crushed quickly before it can sting and the place puffed with smoke.     Basic protective clothing consists of a veil closed shoes or boots rain boots are ideal and clothing thick enough for the bees not to sting through the material and without too many places for a bee can get trapped. A light coloured overall that can be washed after using is ideal. Some people also like to wear gloves and in this case rubber gloves are best as they are most easily cleaned. 

Keeping clean
Good hygiene is not only important for disease control see fact sheet no 20.18 but also for safe bee handling. Keeping clothing clean helps to reduce stings because the smell of previous visits and especially any stings will remain on the clothing and upset the bees at the next visit. Watchstraps trap sweat under them and bees will often sting there.  Bees also hate the smell of human sweat and breath so it helps to wash well before visiting the bees making sure scented soaps or similar smells are avoided and that strong smelling food or drink such as garlic is not consumed before visiting the bees. 

Gentle handling
Good protective clothing and plenty of smoke enables a beekeeper to feel more relaxed about taking the time to be gentle in handling the bees. Bees hate to knocked or banged. They also interpret rapid panicky or jerky movements as a threat so all dealings with bees should be gentle quiet and as quick and careful as possible.   

Visiting the bees
Once kitted out with suitable clothing and with the smoker going well the beekeeper is ready to start handling the bees. The beekeeper should be clear about the work he is going to do in the hive and how it is to be done. All equipment needed should be ready and on hand and working areas should be kept clear of unnecessary clutter. This will ensure that the visit to the bees is as quick as possible and the colony is closed again in the shortest possible time. It is always best for two people to work together and someone should always be informed about where you have gone. Keep other people away whilst working with the bees. It is best to work from the farthest end of apiary towards the entrance. This way the beekeeper does not have to keep going near colonies of bees that have been disturbed so they settle more quickly. When working a beehive the beekeeper should stand behind the hive so that the foraging bees can come and go about their normal business without being disturbed.  The entrance to the hive should be well smoked in most cases until the beekeeper knows how his bees react to smoke. When using top bar hives and looking to find where the nest starts don't tap the top bars too hard or for too long as this upsets the bees and they will be angry by the time the hive is opened. The bees always react most anxiously to the first cracks of light going in to the hive as the beekeeper opens it up. This means it is most important to apply smoke at the place where the hive is first opened.  Once the place to start is determined two top bars are removed and a very little smoke applied across the gap. No more than two top bars should ever be removed at one time. As the next top bar is removed the last one should be replaced. With some types of hives covering cloths can be used to keep the colony dark. These are simply two cotton cloths of sufficient size to cover all but the small gap needed to work with one comb or frame. The second comb frame or top bar is removed to give sufficient space to work with the comb without damaging the bees attached to it one may be the queen!. Hold any comb being inspected comb over hive in case the queen should be on it and accidentally drop. Happy Beekeeping                                                


Pam Gregory May 2004

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